Webcomickry: Website Design (Part 2: Archiving)
Ok, never has a post taken me so long to write. Two days in a row I sat down to hammer this thing out and fell asleep in my chair, so either I need more sleep or I'm a more boring writer than I thought!
So let's talk archives. Archives are a necessary trapping for any sort of content which is released in a serialized format, and webcomics are no exception. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to follow your webcomic if you don't have an archive. I think everyone knows that. So there's no need for dicussion in that regard. What we need to discuss is the structure of your archives and methods of navigation.
Structure is fairly simple. Without getting too technical, there's basically two ways to structure your archive: storing your comics by the date they were posted and storing them by comic number. In my opinion, storing by comic number is a much better way to go. While it is of some interest to people to see the dates on the last few comics you've posted (generally to check if they've missed anything), beyond that no one really cares when you posted your comic. Sure, you can still include the date as it's pretty easy information to include, but I think the majority of readers derive far more pleasure from numbers on the strips, which gives them a better feel for how the comic is progressing. For instance, if you click into an archive and see "Comic for 8/5/2004" you really have no sense of context beyond that the comic went up about a year and three months ago. But if you see "Comic #326" then you get a good idea of how much development in the life of the comic has lead up to this strip. This also prevents confusion on the off chance that you post two comics in one day. Fact of the matter: comic numbers are a good thing, and should be used.
Now, for the more interesting discussion of navigation. The most important thing to remember when designing your navigation is that a person may be linked to your site at any random point in your archives. There's no guarantee they'll get to your site from the front page, or even from the beginning of a storyline. So you want it to be easy for a person to get around from any point in your archives. The second most important thing to remember is that continuing readers will occasionally need to check and see if they've missed anything, and you want to be sure that there is some easy way for them to tell.
Now, there is by no means any consensus among the community as to what an ideal navigation schema is, but there are several different navigation elements which commonly appear on webcomic sites. Each of these elements adds certain methods of navigating an archive and each has it's own advantages and disadvantages, so let's look at them in turn.
- First-back-forward-current buttons: The "fbfc", as I like to call them, are essential to the navigation scheme of any webcomic. No webcomic should be without them, as they define by far the most common navigational functions that a person visiting your site would like to undertake: to go back to the first comic and read from the beginning, to read the immediately previous comic than the one they are currently looking at (this one is generally if they're checking if they missed something or if they get linked in at a random strip), to read the comic immediately following the one they are looking at (generally if they are reading straight through your archives), and to skip ahead to the latest comic (also generally if they were linked in to a random spot in the archive). There's really no reason any webcomic shouldn't have these buttons, so just include them. How you decide to depict them is up to you, but they should be there.
- Jump menu: The jump menu is basically a drop down box with a list of all your comics, with a very short description of title for each comic. This allows you to quickly jump to any specific comic. I'm a big fan of the jump menu myself as it allows you to quickly find a comic anywhere in an archive and it doesn't take up a lot of space. Besides, both Megatokyo and Penny Arcade use jump menus, and who am I to argue with them? The disadvantage of a jump menu is that there is a practical limitation on how much description you can provide for each strip, as otherwise the menu box will get way too wide and impossible to really navigate around in. You can really only put in a couple of words of description, and that's not very much. While I do like jump menus, I've had no end of frustration trying to find a specific comic using them, because it can be quite difficult to figure out which one is the one you're looking for from a couple of words.
- Calendar: This seems to be a very popular feature, but it's possible that's just because Keenspot and Keenspace have an automatic function for creating them, so many people don't have to do any work to get them. Basically the calendar is a box showing the current month with links on every day in which a strip was released. In full archive format, it's a bunch of calendars showing every month since you started your strip to today, with links on every day a new strip was released. The only real advantage I can see to this system is if someone stops reading your comic, or is away from their computer for a month or something, they can say "Ok, I stopped reading in November of 2004" and can then go find November 2004 and start reading from there. And that's not such a bad thing. It won't help you get new readers, but it can help bring back readers that have gone away. Also, if you are going to use a calendar, I recommend trying the timeline display format used by Applegeeks. It gives more of a feeling of progression than the box shaped calendars.
- The "page with a big-ass list of links": This is perhaps the simplest method of keeping an archive, to have a link to an "archive" page which lists every strip you've ever done in a big list. There are advantages to this method. It's similar to the jump menu except it allows you to enter in more text describing what's going on in each strip, so it's easier for someone to find the strip they're looking for. Of course, the downside to this method is that once your comic gets to a significant length this page becomes HUGE, and a real hassle for someone to scroll through. One solution to this is to break up these lists by year, and that's not such a bad idea. However, I think in general this sort of archive navigation has been obsoleted by the next one.
- Search: You've heard of OhNoRobot, right? It allows you to transcribe your comics so that they will all be entirely keyword searchable. I think every webcomic artist should go transcribe their entire archives and then make a habit of transcribing every comic they post afterwards. Then you can put a link up on your page (hopefully in the future they'll come up with some way you can search from your actual website, like Google site search, but you can still create your own view of the search engine, so that's not bad.) and all your readers can easily go search for "that one comic where the goat says 'I'm not your mother'." Sure, they do have a script set up that allows you to have your readers transcribe your comics, but do you really trust your readers that much? I don't. I want my archives put in flawlessly. This is an extremely nice navigation function and I think every webcomic ought to sign up.
- List with preview thumbnails: Generally this will not be a list of ALL your comics as that would require loading way too many thumbnails and take a huge amount of time. Usually it's a navigatable list of like 20 thumbnails at a time. This method works great for some comics, and absolutely will not work for others. Generally it will work for a comic with full color art that changes it's look quite a bit from strip to strip, like Copper. But if you find that once you shrink your comic down to thumbnail size, every strip looks pretty much indistinguishable, then this is obviously not a feature for you. If it will work for you, I say go for it, because it's probably the best way for someone to find "that one strip", because they can actually see a preview of it, and they'll recognize it.
- Storyline navigation: This consists of either a jump menu or a list of links which do not lead to individual strips, but rather to the beginning of storylines in your comic. Obviously, this is another one that will only work for certain comics. If your comic is purely "gag-a-day" with no continuity, then there's really no way to jump to a storyline because there aren't any. But for those comics that frequently have long story arcs, this can be a wonderful method of navigation, especially if the story arcs tend to be fairly self-contained. It allows a new reader to start with whatever storyline sounds most interesting to them. It allows a returning reader to say "oh yeah, they were doing such and such when I left" and to go back and read from where they left off while at the same time being able to easily refresh their memories on what had happened in that story up to the point where they had left off. It also allows continuing readers who get lost in the middle of a storyline to go back and easily read the storyline from it's beginning and remind themselves of what's happened. This is probably much more useful for a storyline based comic than the "big-ass page of links" and possibly even the normal jump menu.
- Jump to random comic: This isn't really so much a navigation scheme as a frill, but I have seen a fair number of comics include a "random" link. In my opinion, this is really only a useful option for a gag-a-day strip. Maybe it allows new users to get a feel for your comic by giving them a few random samplings. Maybe it allows current users to go back and relive some good times without going through the whole archive. But it won't work for comics with continuity because the chances are you'll land in the middle of something and just be confused as opposed to amused. The best execution of this function has to be Dinosaur Comics, which actually displays the title of the random comic you'll go to in the link, which entices you to go check it out.
I think that pretty much covers all the main navigation functions. I'm sure there are some wacky ones out there that I missed, but that list covers mostly everything. The trick to getting your archive navigation just right is to have the right mix of those functions without confusing your audience by having too many ways of navigating cluttering up your page. Remember that you have a limited amount of real-estate available on your page for displaying stuff without making your readers do too much scrolling, so you've got to lay things out just right.
So those are my thoughts on archiving. But that's just based on what I've seen when reading and what I like personally. Does anyone else have different ideas?